Legends cast long shadows. Progeny of the famous sometimes have it good—but they don’t have it great when it comes to getting respect. And why should they? Recent years have seen the kids of stars come out with some really cringeworthy debuts: Sean Lennon’s Into the Sun was torturously dull; Donovan Leitch’s Nancy-boy Brit-schlock set a new standard for dreck creation. One sometimes wishes that these kids with talent-encoded DNA (save the Jeff Buckleys and Rufus Wainwrights) had gotten lost on a yacht. And then again, once in a blue equatorial moon an offspring comes along who bucks the trend.
In Brazilian music, there is perhaps no bigger name than Joao Gilberto—father of Bebel Gilberto—Brazil’s most revered musician of modern times. He gave samba a jazz swing and breathy, Bahia-folk-inspired vocals and co-created bossa nova with composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. Bebel’s mother, Miucha, made her name as a Brazilian vocalist working with Jobim and uncle Chico Buarque, a songwriter and composer. Bebel Gilberto’s music-royalty status had her recording at the age of 7 and appearing on stage with her mom at Carnegie Hall at the age of 9. As she grew up in Rio, she did soundtrack work, acted, and released a 1986 solo EP, Bebel Gilberto, which contains songs co-written with “voice of a generation” Cazuza; several of these songs became Top 10 hits for other Brazilian pop stars. Around the same time, she and Cazuza (who died of AIDS complications in 1990) recorded the laid-back “Preciso Dizer Que Te Amo,” which ends the spotty Red, Hot + Rio compilation on a grace note.
Feeling a bit oppressed by celebrity in Brazil, Gilberto headed to New York, city of her birth, in 1991 and hooked up with Brazilian-music miners such as David Byrne and Arto Lindsay; with Lindsay she recorded the Next Stop Wonderland score, where her voice appears alongside an Astrud Gilberto track. There, she came into her own as a solo artist, and just in time: By the mid-’90s, Brazilian music was popping up not only in world-music circles but also in DJ mixes. Recently, Gilberto has collaborated with higher-profile international dance scenesters such as Deee-Lite’s Towa Tei, D.C.’s own Thievery Corporation, and Dutchmen Arling & Cameron, as if to atone for an appearance on the Kenny G platinum album Classics in the Key of G.
Now, 25 years after her first studio date, Gilberto has found it in herself to make a solo album, Tanto Tempo (which means, appropriately, “so long”). She wrote most of the songs on Tanto Tempo, picked a few Brazil-pop classics (Baden Powell, Gilberto Gil, and Buarque tunes), and alternated between using contemporary DJ producers and a skilled band of Brazilian session players. Unexpectedly, it is hard to tell which is which. The DJs—Amon Tobin, Arling & Cameron, Thievery Corporation, and producer Mario Caldato Jr. (he who bluffed us into believing the Beastie Boys were worth our time)—make their marks on certain tracks but really aren’t the main attraction here. Gilberto’s voice, somehow light and rich, assuredly smooth, and funky without ever turning into stock R&B, steals the show. The range of chill-out style productions, the subtle rhythmic shifts that the DJs work in, and the coloring of the classical guitar lines give Tanto Tempo a modern edge, but the songwriting style adheres to traditions that Gilberto witnessed in their genesis; Tanto Tempo is definitely a bossa nova album.
“August Day Song” finds Gilberto singing sleepily amidst plucked guitars and beats. Producer Suba, who recorded Gilberto in Sao Paulo, paints a lush backdrop of string samples and spaced-out piano and mixes her voice especially thick and warm on “Tanto Tempo.” Arling & Cameron create skipping, shuffling Latin rhythms and let Gilberto sing over a repeating guitar loop on the upbeat “Sem Contencao.” Thievery Corporation may introduce more intrigue in the brief “Lonely” than necessary, and that song’s mix is made up of hardly anything recognizable, but it still works. The tracks that Gilberto has created with DJs have a comfortable European sophistication.
Tanto Tempo won’t get one spin, however, without the name of another Gilberto entering your head—that of “The Girl From Ipanema,” Astrud Gilberto, Joao’s young wife at the time when bossa nova exploded in the early ’60s. Her guileless, poignant singing on Getz/Gilberto and performances with Getz’s quartet made her a star in the U.S. For her first solo albums, Astrud was often teamed with experienced producers and arrangers to sing popular film themes. Bebel has found her niche with hip, independent labels that intend to make triphop-bossa nova a phenomenon.
Bebel’s voice is smoother than Astrud’s, her musicality deeper, and her appeal far less tied to the paradox of innocence and desire. She’s cooing warm love letters rather than striking insouciant poses. Time described Astrud’s voice in the ’60s as “artless, chalky” and indicating a “yearning innocence”; in retrospect, though, it was America doing the yearning for her almost-teenage sex appeal. Bebel’s version of classic “So Nice (Summer Samba)” on Tanto does invite comparisons to Astrud, but Bebel ends up somewhere entirely different. She sings to our innocence.
By producing “Lonely,” Thievery Corporation gives D.C. an even greater claim to being a port for bossa nova’s entry into the U.S. The genre’s stateside breakthrough, Jazz Samba (1962), was recorded at Pierce Hall/All Souls Church at 16th and Harvard Streets NW by Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz. A Billboard success, the album put Getz in the business of turning bossa nova into a popular jazz form. Byrd had heard the “new flair” music on a State Department jazz tour of Latin America. Joao Gilberto and Jobim had been aiming for Miles Davis’ kind of cool-itude, and they ended up birthing a genre so uniquely stylish, so detached, yet so timelessly able to express melancholia, love, and joy that it doesn’t ever get old. CP